Very young people learn extremely effectively if given half a chance. We almost all learned how to walk, talk, handle tools, control our bodily functions and get our needs met in complex social situations by the time we were three years old. This is an astonishing achievement.
Our ability and willingness to learn new things tend to fall off dramatically as we get older compared to our earliest years. This learning ‘gap’ may appear inevitable and biological, therefore unchangeable.
I want to challenge this assumption.
How infants learn
Very young children learn in many, many different ways. They observe the world. They try things out for fun and see what happens. They imitate people, ask questions and ask for help. They set themselves goals and go for them with enormous persistence. Their involvement in the learning process is total. There is no separation between learning, play, work, and leisure.
Infants do everything, including all aspects of learning, with frightening intensity. They freely express their frustration in tears or tantrums if they hit obstacles. There will be squeals of excitement or enormous giggles if they have success. These forms of emotional release seem to unlock the energy required to continue learning.
The learning environment around young people
Unfortunately, because our society does not value or support parenting, the pressures on parents make it hard to maintain optimal conditions for learning. However, something like what follows happens in most homes sometimes.
A child is learning to walk. Typically the adults around the child are 1) paying loving attention, 2) being encouraging, 3) showing delight at attempts and ‘failures’ as well as successes, 4) being noisily enthusiastic about the child (you clever girl!) and showing it, 5) not ‘helping’, 6) not judging or criticising, 7) not giving advice, 8) not interfering with the child’s natural learning process, 9) not directing what the child should learn, or when 10) celebrating success with the child 11) accepting the child’s feelings and allowing their expression.
The effect of this loving and encouraging atmosphere is that the child enjoys learning and responds to others’ pleasure in her learning. Everyone finds it enormous fun.
The learning environments are the closest to the ideal above that I have found.
Sudbury Valley School has no curriculum. The children choose what they want to learn and when and how to learn it. There are no grades or exams. It is extraordinarily effective. The book Free at Last about the school is utterly inspiring.
Sugata Mitra has shown that children can teach themselves and each other. Children all over India learned English and how to use the internet entirely without instruction. They were motivated by curiosity and peer interest.
How is the natural learning process degraded?
Learning is one function of human intelligence. We need to know how intelligence works to understand how it operates (and is degraded). As infants, humans have enormously flexible intelligence. They take in information open-mindedly from the environment, compare and contrast it with what they already know and then make a new and appropriate (for them) response. The flexibility of very young children’s intelligence is legendary; you can never predict what they will do.
This process is available to everyone and works well except in two circumstances. We tend not to think well when we are hurting and may do stupid things that hurt us or others. We also find it challenging to think in situations that remind us of times we have been hurt. Again, we tend to do stupid things that reinforce the original hurt. Eventually, this leads us to develop rigid (non-learning) behaviour patterns.
When we are hurting, the degradation of intelligence affects all aspects of human behaviour, including our learning processes. We cannot learn effectively when we are hurting or when the situation we are trying to learn in reminds us of a painful ‘learning’ one. Unfortunately, some of these learning situations were inappropriately managed and hurtful. We were often judged, criticised, rigidly controlled and humiliated. Many of us acquire a rigid pattern of rejecting voluntary learning altogether because we associate all learning situations with painful experiences.
The recovery process
When young people are hurt, they immediately deal with their pain. This process is spontaneous and untaught. Typically a young person will find another attentive person and then actively release the tension. This release can take the form of talking to the other person, crying, angry movements (a tantrum), sweating or shaking, laughing, or yawning. These processes will continue, if uninterrupted, for quite a long time. In the end, the child will be bright-eyed, energetic, and eager to continue learning.
These processes thoroughly eliminate the painful emotion and help the child think and learn again. Unfortunately, these recovery processes disturb adults and society and tend to be inhibited, often in quite unconscious ways (e.g. the common injunction “big boys don’t cry”). We tend to lose the awareness and ability to use our natural recovery processes through these inhibitions imposed on us from outside.
Counselling is a way to recover and use this natural process. In its most potent form, the counsellor and client then swap roles. One person agrees to pay attention to another as the other “talks through” a problem or situation and releases tension using the above mechanisms. This process will shift the inhibitions around learning using all the modalities available to young people. You can learn this quickly.
When young people learn something new, they naturally and noisily celebrate this fact by crowing about it. The child celebrates their enormous cleverness in learning this new thing. The expression of self-appreciation and delight anchors in their minds the awareness of the child’s abilities and reinforces their motivation towards making the best of new learning experiences.
This celebration makes most adults uncomfortable because it stirs doubt and discouragement. We tend to suppress the child from ‘showing off’ and create the same doubt and lack of confidence. So the process perpetuates itself.
It does not have to be this way.
We can create better conditions for learning to take place. These imply more play, support, learner-centred, and much less detailed instruction.
Faster learning will help individuals and organisations be far more effective and innovative.
We need to enable our students and ourselves to release their tension about learning situations before teaching anything. Tense students with tense teachers are not likely to learn well. That means they will need to know how to help each other release this. We can help our students and ourselves recover our giant-sized ability to learn.
We must encourage our students to celebrate their naturally enormous ability to learn and crow about their successes. Trainers and teachers might do this themselves. ‘Three reasons why I am an excellent teacher are…’
We need to do more research into natural learning. Let’s notice what young people do, listen to how they think and learn, and learn from them.
The ideas in this note are a hypothesis based on common sense observations. They now need further testing and refining. If they prove valid, we will design learning and teaching processes that will enable us to use our innate learning abilities. The implications and benefits are staggering.